American Fashion: The Tirocchi Sisters in Context


Madelyn Shaw
Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design

Anna and Laura Tirocchi maintained a small, personalized dress business in Providence for over thirty years. These decades saw two world wars, a global economic depression, and the transformation of the industry of which they were a small part; however, the knowledge gained through study of the surviving Tirocchi shop inventory and records is only a fragment of the story of the women"s garment industry in America. Were the Tirocchis and their clients unique or typical? Was their experience of and response to the changes in their industry singular or common? To understand the Tirocchis" place in the dressmaking hierarchy of their day and the changes in the structure of their business, one must examine the wider world of American fashion.

Between 1900 and 1950, the ways in which American women of all social and economic levels thought about and acquired their clothing changed considerably. Any pretense to true high fashion in the early twentieth century required the purchase of a custom-made and custom-fitted wardrobe from Paris couturiers or from American importers and reproducers of Paris models.(1) Although Paris was generally the source of high fashion for what was considered at various times "high society," "the smart set," or "café society," it is also true for most of this period that to be well dressed in Paris required both money and social position, or money and celebrity. Women outside the small circle of wealthy frequenters of Paris couturiers did not exist for the style makers. Bettina Ballard wrote of this "small egocentric group of...chic Parisiennes...who inspired the couturiers and the modistes, the women for whom fashion was really created." She pointed out that during this time, society women "wouldn't have been considered eligible for a fashionable reputation until they were at least 35 and with their children behind them."(2) The youth cult of the post-World War II years was foreign to the elegance of haute couture. True high fashion was always the preserve of the few, but, as a later writer pointed out, "No style is fashionable until it is imitated."(3)

American fashion was seen by most critics as primarily imitative, with few original stylists. In spite of this, at all price levels American-made garments clothed the vast majority of American women. During the commercial life of the Tirocchi shop, the American garment industry learned to combine Art with Big Business. The notion that fashion and style could be made available to the majority of women, whether they were working class or leisure class, was an American original [fig. 77]. In the first decades of the twentieth century, class and social structure in the United States were much more fluid than in Europe. Social position was based not only on family and property, but also on wealth, however it was acquired, and on education: it was possible to cross boundaries. The definition of "society" began to broaden, as the aristocracy by birth and old money began to find competition from a new aristocracy of achievement, celebrity, and notoriety: the "café society" of the 1920s. While there was without doubt a leisured "Society" deserving of the capital "S" in the United States, there was also a need for stylish apparel among the countless women who worked outside the home, whether as volunteers or as wage earners.



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